SCOTT RALL COLUMN: Beekeeping: It's worth it to try, try again
WORTHINGTON -- If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. This is what I did with my attempts at amateur beekeeping.
My friend, Casey Ingenthron, along with Les Johnson made about a $750 investment in some bee hive components and glamorous beekeeping apparel. Casey built the hives and we ordered the interior frames and other components from a distributor.
In concert with the Northwest Iowa Beekeepers Association, we ordered some bee starter packages and, wala, we had three operating bee hives. A starter package is a queen bee and 3,000 worker bees. We were so proud of ourselves.
For us, it was never about the honey we might get but a desire to help pollinate the wildflowers that are all over the wildlife habitat property my parents own.
After the first winter, we were reduced to zero active hives. All three died out over the winter. It was a really bad winter and hive looses for even the experienced beekeepers was about 30 percent. We were at 100 percent loss. We bought three more packages the next spring and did it all over again. Hence the saying "try, try again."
After the second winter we had similar results and only one hive of the three had made it through the winter. It was not in the best of shape from a population point of view, but it was alive and that was better than we had ever done. At this point we had a decision to make.
We either had to get a lot better at what we were doing or this was going to become a pretty expensive hobby.
A bee package is about $90 and we had purchased six already and needed at least two more if we were going to operate three hives. Instead, we went to plan B.
Plan B would be to find someone with experience who would operate the hives for us. The only condition was that they had to stay on our property. We were not asking for anything in return, other than the pollination benefits we would get from having the hives on site.
I did find this person and it is amazing what happens when you know what you're doing. The hives did so well under her management that she actually brought additional hives from other locations and added them to the bee yard where my hives currently sit. So, I asked her what she thought I was doing wrong.
Beekeeping is the same as dog training in that there are no mathematical conclusions that can be drawn when we are dealing with animals and nature, but she did have a few educated conclusions. When she looked at our hives in the early spring, there were very few live bees in the hive.
She figured the hive had swarmed last fall. Swarming is when the queen and most of her followers get up and fly away looking for a new home. When the hive gets too full, the colony looks for a bigger place and strikes out on a new house hunting expedition. You can increase the size of the hive and thus increase the living quarters by adding additional hive sections called hive supers. This is just an additional box that is added and, as you add these additional sections, the hive gets taller and taller. This is why some hives are short and other tall.
We figured if we had a short bee hive chucked full of bees, they could better defend the hive and have a better chance of keeping it warm in the winter.
We were wrong.
By not expanding the hive, it got too full and the queen and her followers went elsewhere looking for better accommodations. This would explain why none of our hives made it through the winter. If the colony swarmed in the fall, there were too few bees left to work together to survive the winter.
The one hive that did make it through the winter the second year has the ability to replace their queen if she deserts them. The worker bees build a queen cell and by feeding the larva in that cell special, they can turn an infertile worker female into a queen. This is pretty amazing stuff. You can't even make this up.
The other thing we did wrong was not asking our hive to work hard enough. Bee hives thrive when they are very active. We left our hives small and when they were filled to overflowing, there was not much left for the 80,000 bees to do. By expanding the hive and adding honey supers, the hive stays in high gear trying to fill up the hive. Maybe that's where "busy as a bee" comes from.
A honey super is different than a hive super in that a screen is placed between the top of the hive and the honey super section. This screen allows the workers to get in the new section, but the queen is too fat to fit through the holes.
Because the queen cannot lay eggs in this combed out section of the hive, the bees figure their job is to fill it with honey. When the first honey super is full of honey you add another and so on and so on until you have honey that can be harvested.
By not allowing the bees to fill up multiple honey supers, for all practical purposes they did not have enough to do.
We figured if they only had to make enough honey for themselves and that the hive was smaller, this would be easier on them. We were wrong and totally so.
The hives did great this year and it is very satisfying to see them -- even if we are no longer involved in their operation. I have been stung by a bee probably 25 times in the first few years. Mid-spring, as I watch the beekeeper work on the hives, I got stung twice in the neck in about 30 seconds and what happened next was pretty scary.
In about five minutes my entire body looked like the surface of Mars. I had bumps and streaks all over. I took a few Benadryl and was about five minutes from a trip to the hospital before the symptoms started to subside. Bee stings, I was told, are cumulative. Each additional sting adds on the one before and after each human gets to the total their body can take, you will have a reaction like the one I had.
So, my intentions of learning from an experienced beekeeper and helping operate the hives are no longer in the picture. I still watch from a distance, but it is a much longer distance than before.
I will have to be content in watching my wildflowers benefit from bees and leave the actual hands-on experience to someone else. This is not really all that bad of an outcome.
For more information, Google the Northwest Iowa Beekeepers Association and see what it will take for you to start you own hive. The entire world should thank beekeepers.
Scott Rall is The Daily Globe's outdoor columnist. His column can also be read weekly at www.dglobe.com.